Dressing the Part


In my former job at a software company, I was deemed smart enough to do presentations and classes on various topics to 50-1000 people (depending on the venue). I'd often rattle off obscure tips and techniques about our software which the attendees, should they ever read their user manuals, would discover was information they've had the whole time. It was because of that thin gap in human behavior - between needing information and seeking it out - that I made a living.

Getting up in front of a large number of people means dressing better than jeans and a t-shirt (though that would be my preference) so my dress code was "graphic designer business casual". Lots of black, non-distracting shoes, etc. Meanwhile, another speaker, Michael Ninness, always wore a suit. For a graphic designer audience clothed primarily in skateboarding brands, and in contrast to the other speakers, "Myke's" attire always struck me as an impressive, if somewhat fussy, choice. (The fact that nothing he wore was ever wrinkled impressed me even more. He must have handed everything to the front desk at the hotel to be pressed upon check-in.)

I finally had to ask him about this suit-wearing business one day and he explained that "wearing a suit makes me feel different. I feel like I need to be more on my game, more focused, and I feel like people look at me differently." All interesting points, though not enough to convince me to wear one. Still, after almost 10 years, his observations have stuck with me and on those rare occasions when I bust out one of my suits, I have to admit that I do feel different in one.

Early on in my cooking pursuits, I was given a chef's coat. As I recall, it included some sarcastic but good-natured comment about "maybe this will make you cook better". Appreciative of the gesture and accepting of the ribbing, I put it on and started making dinner for four. (Chef's whites, like a new pair of white running shoes, must immediately be broken in and "dirtied" up a bit to get rid of that "too-white" look.)

I'll admit, in the early days, I was simply being a poser (hell, I'm still a poser) but over time, I came to rely on that coat as another cooking tool. It allowed me to get dressed appropriately enough for a dinner party, and wear whites over my social clothing to finish prepping or finalize and plate a course. I could transition from messy cook to gracious host in seconds even if I'd managed to dip my sleeve in a sauce, splash water (or red wine) over me, and should I nick a finger with my Global knife, a bit of blood would just add a stroke of legitimacy and character to an otherwise white canvas.

Unfortunately, I also developed a bad habit - wiping my hands on my jacket. This is normally an action of little consequence unless, of course, I wasn't wearing the jacket when I did it. Two quick swipes of dirty cooking hands can send a shirt and pair of pants - literally - to the cleaners.

As Myke noted, it also made me focus on what I was doing. This may sound corny but I "felt" like a chef and occasionally catching a reflection of myself in the kitchen window, I looked like one. A mirror would have been too much and I would have seen right through my own disguise, but the window provided a softened, less-literal view. In my mind, in my kitchen, for that 1-4 hour span, I am a chef. I need to think like one, clean like one, prep like one. Given the long hours, demanding repetition, struggles with staff and unappreciative patrons, not to mention relatively low pay considering the workload, this is about as close as I want to get.

I make fun of people on their way to sporting events wearing those idiotic, over-sized jerseys but, while glancing at myself in that window, I had to acknowledge that I was doing something similar. I don't aspire to cook like any one chef in particular and won't put his or her name on my jacket, my goal is simply to cook at a higher level. If a little white jacket lets me do that, then so be it. Clogs are a stretch, and I draw a hard line at checkered pants.

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